“Jeff, can we sing Kum Ba Ya?”, Judy asked.
I must admit I had a hard time to keep from rolling my eyes at her rather “childish” suggestion, but since I was leading a prayer time for the East African people group we live amongst in northern Wisconsin, I thought I should respectfully follow her lead.
And boy, am I glad I did… because God was in “Kum Ba Ya”. In fact He was all over it and it sparked and directed our next 90 minutes of prayer, praising and warfare for this people group.
Another lesson learned for me on a point the Scriptures are very clear on:
“To each one is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” 1 Cor 12:7
My purpose with this e-mail is to examine and affirm the awesome work of the Holy Spirit, who does the mystifying, energizing work of empowering believers to bring about a “manifestation… for the common good” when the church comes together. Sadly, even this very (New Testament) word, manifestation, frightens some and makes others nervous about going “too far”… Many churches, big or small, home or cathedral, seem to have difficulties in allowing freedom for all the Spirit manifestations.
This situation is not limited to the 21st Century, as we shall see.
Think back to the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out with a violent, rushing wind and tongues of fire! Because of these remarkable “manifestations of the Spirit” upon the early church, many of the people witnessing this event walked away “utterly amazed”, some were “perplexed”; while still others, seeing the same event, could only mock and accuse the believers of drunkenness!
How can the manifestations of the Holy Spirit create such diametrically opposed and unholy reactions? Are there still these similar reactions in our meetings?
To answer these questions we need to look again at the scriptures. The starting point for any in-depth discussion is to set the right context:
1. What was the author’s intent?
2. How did the original audience (i.e. the Corinthian church, A.D. 55) understand Paul’s words?
3. Given that Paul wrote about “the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”, what situation was he writing to? Was he addressing a problem or giving instruction?
Here is where many go off track. I find the writings of Gordon Fee most helpful in this regard:
It is impossible to compute the misunderstandings that have arisen over 1 Corinthians 12–14 because the text has been looked at outside the context of the community at worship. (Listening to the Spirit in the Text – Gordon Fee, emphasis mine)
Fee warns us against trying to interpret these verses, tucked away inside of 1 Corinthians, apart from a clear understanding of why they were written. Here, in this letter, we find the best example (Chs. 11-14) in all of the New Testament of a functioning church. Here we see a body of believers “assembled” in Christ’s Name, who have gathered for the sake of the edification of each person! (e.g. “Let all things be done for edification”. 1 Cor. 14:26)
I cannot say it strongly enough, read through chapters 11-14 again and again, and ask yourself:
“Do our meetings have the ‘look & feel’ of the early church?”
Often times, however, we use the metaphor of the “body with many parts” of 1 Cor. 12 and put that outside of the context in which it was intended for! For example, one way to look at the “body metaphor” is to say that since I am not a very gifted musician but more of a behind-the-scenes “helper”, therefore I should treasure differences in the body by not feeling inferior about my servant gift instead of someone else’s up-front, musical one. This is true. Without a doubt! BUT this is not what Paul is writing to the Corinthians!
Firstly, Paul is writing to a gathered community!
He writes to a body of believers sitting together, who are “doing” church. Sitting side-by-side, I might add, to those enamored with the Internet church! Paul wants love to rule above all else (1 Cor 13) in their gatherings not their gifts. Watchman Nee helpfully echoes this point: “Sometimes people are helped by our gift, but hurt by ourselves.”
Our spiritual gifts (read: manifestations) used without a “spirit of love” may wound! As another has written, who posses a great healing gift, “We can not look at sick and hurting people as simply a means to exercise our gift”.
Secondly, Paul desires things to run decently and in order in their meetings, not to sink into “spiritual chaos”.
Paul wants two or at the most three to speak in tongues or prophecy and when prophesying, let the others weigh the message. He wants the “trumpet to sound a clear call” and not be muddled up with an overuse of public tongues or asking questions at the wrong time. The complete context is nothing but an examination of a 1st century church at worship, warts and all!
What is the Church?
This leads us to ask the question: What is the church? If we are to have the Spirit’s manifestations for the common good, we must better understand and experience church. On my wife’s and my journey to the heart of this question: “What is church?”, we have come to realize a large amount of confusion exists. Tradition, learned behavior and culture mix in and out of the biblical paradigm.
The clear answer from 1 Corinthians is this:
Church is a group of believers assembled with some regularity to eat the Lord’s supper and to edify one another using Spirit-distributed gifts.
In Acts 20, we read that “On the first day of the week they gathered together to break bread…” In Acts 2, we find four main tasks of the newly-gathered church: teaching, fellowship, breaking bread and prayer. Not surprisingly, “everyone kept feeling a sense of awe”, and many wonders and signs were taking place in Jerusalem. What I find most striking is that altar calls, “seeker sensitive” interests and evangelism were surprisingly absent (or at least in the background) in those early church gatherings!
Furthermore, in this passage from 1 Corinthians 12 we find manifestations of the Spirit emphasized, which broadens our study of a functioning NT church: words of wisdom, words of knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, distinguishing of spirits, tongues, and interpretation of tongues. I think a case could be made that more gifts/manifestations are included and expected. (e.g. 1 Cor 14 mentions having a revelation and singing in the Spirit)
If one wonders where have all these gifts gone in an active, face-to-face gathering of believers, s/he is pondering, I believe, one of the main theological question of our time! I cannot imagine more than a handful of churches anywhere that would experience these supernatural gifts on a regular basis, yet most of us seldom, if ever, question their scarcity in our gatherings.
In our return to the NT model of church, if we merely meet (and eat) in our homes and have laymen “facilitating”, ad infinitum… but we do not have the manifestation of the Spirit – with all the corresponding supernatural gifts for the uplifting and edification of all, BY ALL – then we have gained very little, have very little to offer others in their journey and are a but a shadow of the “empowered church” that Jesus died for and purchased with His blood.
Yours for the least in the Kingdom,
P.S. Due to the subject matter and the context of 1 Cor 12-14, I expect many will have very different views. I only hope to spark a dialogue on this one issue here: to each one is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.